BASSETERRE, St. Kitts – APRIL is approaching, and this means college decision time is near. Students all over the world are choosing where they will spend the next four years of their lives, and many of them consider it the most important decision they have ever made.
For Kittitian and Nevisian students, the pressure is especially high. With the establishment of the Caribbean Single Market and Economy (CSME), the need to succeed academically and thus have good job prospects has been heightened. To many, getting into the best college they possibly can is the first step down this path.
The strain normally begins in fifth form amidst preparation for Caribbean Certificate of Secondary Education (CSEC) examinations. Students suddenly become achingly aware of the significance of doing well in them.
Clarence Fitzroy Bryant College (CFBC) student Lonell Liburd vividly remembers his last few months of high school.
“It was important for me to do as well as I could on my exams. Without a good performance, I knew I wouldn’t be able to get into my dream college or any top school for that matter. Based on my results, I wanted to get into the best school I possibly could.”
The burden grows deeper in sixth form as students decide potential career paths. Seeking the perceived competitive advantage of going to a top university, many set their sights on reputable institutions in the developed world.
The application cycle falls between September and January and during that period, students fill out the requisite forms and tests and send off applications with high hopes and crossed fingers.
The usual targets are North American and United Kingdom schools. And then there are the University of the West Indies (UWI), University of the Virgin Islands (UVI) and other regional institutions.
There has been a steady rise in the global population since World War Two, which social scientists attribute to the baby boom from the 1940s to the 1960s. During that period, the birth rate in North American and European countries increased by as much as 20 percent.
The grandchildren and some great grandchildren of these ‘baby boomers’ are today’s high school students. The upsurge in population means more and more persons are graduating from high school, and consequently, more and more persons are looking towards a college education.
Due to this, competition for the scarce spots within college classes has greatly intensified over the last decade. Universities have become increasingly selective, with elite schools such as Harvard and Yale accepting less than 10 percent of the applications they received for the class of 2012. Admissions personnel at these schools admit they had to turn away thousands of applicants, who, if size permitted, would have been accepted.
The situation is almost as bad at less prominent institutions. With the significantly larger pool of applicants, universities throughout North America and Europe are free to pick and choose. Many students complete between six to 10 applications because they know they cannot be completely confident of getting into any one school.
Local students may be granted conditional acceptance based on their upcoming Caribbean Advanced Proficiency Exams (CAPE). However, this only adds to the pressure they already face; with college looming so near yet so far, they are even more aware that a screw-up in these exams could mean staying home in September.
This is the climate our students enter. Can you blame them for being scared and daunted by the process?
Nathan Williams can identify. Having graduated from the CFBC last year, he has been through the application process and found it challenging.
“You’re competing against thousands of students for a fixed number of places. For international students, the chance of success is even lower than the rate of admission for US students.
“You have to do the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) and it seems as though your results on that are valued more highly than those of your CSEC and CAPE. Additionally, there are limited scholarship opportunities for international students and, because many of us would require a larger financial aid package, our applications are not assessed objectively,” he said.
The websites of many North American and UK schools state their policy of only granting aid to local students. In Ivy League schools such as Columbia University that do grant aid to international students, the Admissions Office notes that applications from these students would not be reviewed on a need-blind basis. That is, the student’s financial resources and the amount of aid they are likely to ask for are also considered in the selection process.
Students from St. Kitts and Nevis cannot help but feel disadvantaged.
“We don’t have SAT prep centres like they do; we don’t have the exposure to career planning and the access to federal funding that they do. When it comes to these universities, local students do have a disadvantage,” said Williams.
His perception is shared by a sizeable number of local students. Nonetheless, every year scores of them try their luck with these institutions.
The only school they feel absolutely confident about getting into is UWI. If all else fails, many students know a spot will likely be there for them. The common refrain is “Yeah, I applied to UWI, but only as a backup in case I don’t get into the other schools I want”.
UWI graduate Grace Richardson disagrees with this idea.
“UWI has produced many of the Caribbean’s leading scholars and politicians. I’m currently working on my Masters from the University of Leicester in England. It has been challenging, but my UWI days were excellent preparation for this degree. UWI prepares you to handle anything the world throws at you.
“Students need to realise it’s not only about the school you attend. What you do while you’re there is just as important. There are students from middle-of-the-road institutions who excel professionally because of their ability and diligence. Not getting into a top school is not a death sentence,” she asserted.
With the recent launch of the White Paper on Education Policy 2009 to 2019, greater focus will be placed on career counselling within secondary and tertiary schools. Ron Collins, a guidance counsellor at the Basseterre High School, applauded the move.
“It’s a wonderful idea; one that will go a long way towards guiding the energies of our students. Now they will be better equipped to deal with the pressures and stress of high school, including the college admissions process.
“However, I must stress that going to a high-ranking university is not an automatic indicator of success. You can go to a really good school and not perform to its standard. At the end of the day, the choice to be serious and hard-working lies with you. Your college experience is what you make it,” he noted.
Within the coming months, many persons will know their scholastic fate. Hopefully, they will recognise that the hard work has only just begun.